DOMA and the DREAM Act: How the LGBT and immigration reform movements intersect

For many undocumented youth, "coming out" is a familiar process. Similar to how LGBT people reveal their sexuality or gender identity to their friends and family members, undocumented youth across the country are using "coming out" as a tactic to find self-empowerment, change public opinion and alleviate fear within themselves and their communities. Felipe Matos, 26, an undocumented immigrant from Brazil who identifies as queer, says coming out as undocumented gives people the chance to talk about their personal lives and how issues hurt and help them. (Read more about how undocumented people are adopting LGBT advocacy tactics here.)

"There is something about taking ownership of your personal life and not being ashamed," Matos said. "There is a lot of talk about how LGBT issues and immigration issues are controversial, but we need to create a new space where people can be both an undocumented and LGBT."

Matos is the National Field Director at Get Equal, a group whose mission is to empower LGBT individuals and their allies to take bold action in demanding full legal and social equality. He was sent to Miami from Brazil by his mother at the age of 14; after struggling as an undocumented person and coming to the realization about his sexuality during his teenage years, Matos became involved with immigrant-rights advocacy groups.

In 2008, Matos came out as undocumented at a rally in front of the Department of Homeland Security offices in Miami. Now no longer in hiding, Matos joined three other students from Florida on a 1500-mile walk from Miami to Washington, D.C. as part of the Trail of Dreams, a group focused on creating dialogues about the plight of undocumented youth. The walk began on January 1, 2010. 

Today, thanks in great part to grassroots campaigns, organizations, and thousands of undocumented youth, changes are occurring for undocumented youth on a national level. On June 15, President Obama made a historic announcement calling for a halt of deportations for immigrant youth who meet certain criteria. Though Matos could benefit from President Obama's call for deferred action and could potentially receive a work permit, Matos says Obama's announcement could be overturned by future officials and provides no pathway to citizenship. A more permanent solution - such as the passage of the DREAM Act - is needed.

The DREAM Act would provide undocumented youth who entered the United States before the age of 16 a path to conditional residency. To qualify for the DREAM Act, undocumented youth would have to additionally prove five years of continual presence in America, graduate from a U.S. high school or obtain a GED, demonstrate good moral character, and complete a two-year degree or two years of military service.

While the DREAM Act would benefit an array of undocumented youth, many LGBT individuals are leading the immigration movement - and that's not a coincidence. Many heterosexual DREAM Act-eligible youth have been able to get married and adjust their immigration status through sponsorship from a U.S. citizen spouse. But because of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of legal marriages between same-sex couples, undocumented youth in same-sex relationships don't have this immigration option. For them, the DREAM Act is that much more important.

On May 18, 2012, Matos married Juan Rodriguez, his Colombian boyfriend of three and a half years, in Boston. Rodriguez, who is now a permanent resident and soon-to-be citizen, however, cannot sponsorship Matos because of DOMA's discrimination against same-sex couples.

The Uniting American Families Act, an act that Freedom to Marry supports, was proposed in Congress on April 14, 2011, and it would allow American citizens and lawful residents like Rodriguez to sponsor their foreign-born partner bringing and end to the separation of families.

Though U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton sent out a memorandum on June 17, 2011 giving ICE agents the discretion to close low-priority cases, whose criteria would include both foreign-born spouses of U.S. citizens and many DREAM Act-eligible youth, deportations continue to occur. The Obama Administration has deported more than 1.1 million immigrants, more than any other U.S. President in history.

"Marriage is an institution that was created to build families," Matos said. "Opposite-sex, bi-national, LGBT couples are still a family unit - and to separate a family is the most horrific thing you can do to someone's life."

While bi-national same-sex couples sometimes turn to expensive and complicated time-consuming options such as family, employment, refugee, asylum, lottery and country-specific visas to keep their family together, such visas are not always approved and are generally unavailable to undocumented individuals residing in the United States. 

In addition, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a law passed in 1996 aimed to crack down on undocumented immigrants, punishes immigrants who have remained in the United States without proper documents to receive up to a ten year bar from the United States, should they leave the country. Without the ability to receive an adjustment of status from marriage or the ability to file for visas, Matos and Rodriguez remain unclear about their future.

"I do hope the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, but I don't believe in waiting for things to change," Matos said. "I believe change only comes when people who want the rights they rightfully deserve go out and get stuff done."